Tuesday 6 April 2010

Whisky Squad #1

The idea behind Whisky Squad was simple. Not every whisky lover wants to fork out £40 to attend a professionally organised tasting event every time they feel like trying something new. Some, particularly those of an amateurish and convivial persuasion, might prefer to meet up in less formal surroundings, like a pub, combine their spending power to procure fine spirits, and spend a happy few hours getting to know them. No membership fees, no expertise required, just a willingness to drink and talk. That was the idea, inspired in part, it must be said, by the Brighton pioneers Malt'n'Copper. But it was one of those ideas I had always assumed would remain just that - a brilliant plan to discuss over whisky and then forget about until the next time the whisky came out and the plan would be discussed some more (...repeat until fade). Then, earlier this year, I met Jason at an ale tasting and remarkably, within a matter of weeks, a dozen of us were sitting around a table in a room above The Gunmakers preparing to kick off our first tasting session. Two other interventions made it possible. They were Jeff, The Gunmakers' inestimable landlord, who allowed us use of his facilities, and Darren, the whisky guy, a walking whiskypedia who agreed to be our guide.

For our first event, we chose the theme of How to Taste Whisky, with the intention of comparing and contrasting different styles to give everyone a proper grounding in the basics. Each of us having chipped in some cash, Darren brought with him five bottles from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), which we tried blind, without professional tasting notes, in an attempt to encourage original thought. Soon enough, cries of "sticky toffee pudding" and "burnt plastic like a vacuum cleaner gone wrong" rang forth as the group shared their first impressions with abandon. It was like a poetry slam, except at its core was not existential crisis, but whisky.

Here follow the whiskies we tried, with their SMWS reference numbers (read more about its methods here), my brief personal notes, and an excerpt from the SMWS's own wonderful if weird descriptions. (Note: 'unreduced' here means taking the whisky straight, without water; 'reduced' means with a few drops of water added).

Scrumptious Cockles
(50.39) 56% vol, 16 yrs, bourbon casks, Bladnoch Distillery.
My note: Vanilla, caramel, dry.
SMWS note
: "The unreduced palate was scrumptiously sweet and creamy but slight citric bitterness and white pepper reminded the Whisky-manager of hot toddy... The reduced palate suggested the sweet chalkiness of Berwick cockles or lemon bonbons and we suspected cinnamon or aniseed in the finish."

Moroccan Tea-Room Masculinity
(35.34) 57% vol, 13 yrs, new charred oak, Glen Moray.
My note: Fantastic cherry aroma, like a Manhattan cocktail. Caramel, toffee, biscuit, fudge. Tastes surprisingly dry, in contrast to aroma, with a woody edge. Better with a few drops of water.
SMWS note: "[On the nose] echoes of oak... complimented the rich toffee, chocolate and raisins... The reduced nose, with perfumed smoke, sandalwood and carpets, suggested Moroccan tea-rooms... The palate became elegantly sweet and teasing, but with clove and cogar-box boldness."

Whisky-flavoured Condoms and Skunk Road-kill
(66.28) 59% vol, 10 yrs, sherry butt, Ardmore.
My note: Sulphury, feet, sweeter with water.
SMWS note: "The palate, with its malt extract, smouldering hashish, whisky-flavoured condoms and skunk road-kill seemed to the manage like a Tom and Jerry hammer-in-the-face experience... Certainly more approachable with water."

Liquid Heaven
(7.55) 55% vol, 40 yrs, first-fill sherry butt, Longmorn.
My note
: Aroma of indelible markers or solvent. Taste sweet, cherry, with a long finish. Lots going on - twisting and turning. Better without water.

SMWS note: "The nose was pure decadence, reminiscent of a classic old vintage car, with the smell of leather, warm sandalwood and tea boxes. The palate was fine and dark - the best dark chocolate filled with kirsch, served with double-distilled espresso. A few drops of water revealed a cathedral at Christmas - waxy church candles, Christmas cake, the scent of vetiver."

Cheeky Vimto for Guy Fawkes
57% vol, 10 yrs, first-fill barrel (ex-bourbon), Ardbeg.
My note: Aroma of light peat, with banana? Spicy with apple aftertaste.
SMWS note: "Loads of smoke and tar on the palate...tooth-scuffing with intense sweetness and mighty smoke. 'In your face,' someone said - 'Just like a fish hook,' was the reply."

I can see my notes need working on - others in our group were far more creative than I. But these things improve with practice, right? On top of the tastings, we also learnt the following whisky facts:

* The natural strength of single cask whisky is about 63% abv.
* It takes three to seven days to make a batch of single malt.
* The colour of the whisky bears no relation to its age (some brands add caramel spirit colouring to their whisky to maintain a consistent colour).
* Vanilla flavours in whisky derive from the compound vanillin, which is found in the wood of the barrels in which it is aged.
* Peat = earthy. Smoke = burnt twig. Phenolic = medicinal/TCP.

I hope and trust Whisky Squad #1 will turn out to be the first of many. Keep an eye on the website for news.


  1. F**k me running, I think you might want some stronger ones next time...

  2. I have a glass of the Whisky Flavoured Condoms and Skunk Roadkill in front of me at the moment - one of my faves that the SMWS has bottled since I joined. Annoyingly they've very recently sold out.

    Sounds like it went well - I'll be keeping an eye out for Whisky Squad #2...